Forum Breslin, Hamill and the limits of mainstream media

April 1, 2019 GMT

HBO recently televised “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” about legendary New York journalists Pete Hamill and the late Jimmy Breslin. Well-done as far as it goes, the show traces how Breslin and Hamill became two of the country’s best-known reporters without having graduated college, let alone journalism school.

They did so by focusing on the monumental upheaval in the 1960s in the lives of New York’s workers and poor: the rapid shift in the city’s ethnic makeup, with a dramatic influx of Puerto Ricans and Southern blacks and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of second-generation Europeans; the devastating rise of heroin; and perhaps foremost, capital flight and the resulting economic ruin of millions of lives.

In the show, Breslin describes his approach: “Just go to any neighborhood where the poor live and tell the truth about what you see.” That’s commendable and something that is as glaringly missing from mainstream journalism today as it was in their time. However, Breslin also says, “Please do not put out a sermon. That’s for Sunday.” That’s not really what he meant, though, as he and Hamill did plenty of sermonizing. What he really meant was not to probe to the roots of a socioeconomic system from which flow all of the problems they wrote so eloquently about.

Nowhere in the show is there a hint of the constraints within which mainstream journalists work, then and now. The impression left is of media corporations that are benevolent and neutral in which someone with enough talent can rise to where they can write whatever they want. That is not even remotely true, however. There is a very real, very narrow spectrum within which certain issues and certain opinions are acceptable and others are completely excluded. Any journalist no matter how established and famous would immediately be fired if he or she began writing things the media corporations don’t want said.

Consider a vast national corporate media encompassing print, electronic, digital, radio and television where there is not a single socialist journalist, in a country where the population favors socialism over capitalism. This is never brought up, let alone discussed, during the two-hour show. Nor is the equally astonishing fact that so many millions would come to socialism in the absence of a single such voice anywhere in the mainstream to clarify and reinforce people in what they know to be right.

The narrow spectrum of what’s acceptable is evident in examining Breslin and Hamill’s writing on the U.S. war against Vietnam. While often insightful, neither seriously confronted the primary issue: U.S. aggression in Southeast Asia, the worst international war crime since the Nazis. It was as impermissible to say that five decades ago in the corporate media as it is today to talk about U.S. support of terrorists in Venezuela or murderous regimes in Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Honduras, Rwanda, Haiti, Israel, Colombia, the Philippines, Brazil and many other places.

The “anti-war” media of the 1960s is a lie. Breslin, Hamill, Walter Lippmann, David Halberstam and others were concerned with the costs to the United States. The U.S.’s destruction of three countries and the deaths of perhaps 5 million Indochinese were mostly irrelevant.

It’s striking that there is no discussion in the show about how Breslin and Hamill forged careers that made them famous and fabulously wealthy: by obediently abiding the system’s constraints. We wouldn’t expect kindred spirits like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese to say that but someone should have.

There are severe limits to truth telling in corporate media. Countless writers, including many able to write circles around Breslin and Hamill, toil in obscurity because they have a commitment to “telling the truth” beyond what either ever imagined. The mutual admiration society in the HBO show operates in a world so enclosed that none of this has ever apparently occurred to any of them.

Breslin and Hamill, bloated by wealth, became unable to see the kind of people they grew up amongst: the bus drivers, nurses and struggling artists no longer welcome in New York, plus tens of millions of workers nationally whose lives get worse every day. Meanwhile, journalists around the world rooted in the working class who work on the margins because they cannot be bought write with great insight about “where the poor live.”

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author whose most recent book is the novel In Motion.